Since its founding, the NAACP has had to dance the tight rope between progressive grassroots activism and the shackles of corporate cronyism. The group is on the receiving end of millions in corporate money, some of which comes with the subtle expectation that the watchdog group will spend its time watching somebody else. That doesn't mean that the deals are unethical, but given that money is a drug, we must be mindful of the fact that such addictions might come with consequences.
I wrote a bit on BV this week about the disturbing relationship between the NAACP and accused predatory lender Wells Fargo. My contention was not to imply that the NAACP was selling itself out, but rather, to argue that the words of the day must be "transparency" and "accountability" to ensure that the donation to the organization was not a ticket to wash away corporate sins. Wells Fargo has been accused by a long list of municipalities of egregious and highly destructive economic conduct within the African American community, and we simply cannot just "let bygones be bygones." Jealous wrote a response to public criticism on TheGrio.com, explaining the nature of the partnership and why the NAACP made its decision.
I spoke with Ben Jealous about the situation, and I found him to be very forthcoming and honest about the nature of the transaction. While I am not at liberty to discuss the details of the conversation, I can say that I did encourage him to be equally forthcoming with the African American community and those the NAACP represents. My discussion with Jealous was more productive, frank and enlightening than prior discussions I'd had with other members of the NAACP communications team. In fact, I was shocked that it took so long to get someone to call me back, and my poor assistant was banging her head against the wall for weeks.
At the end of the day, here are the issues that Ben Jealous and the NAACP must confront:
1) There is an image problem with being affiliated with Wells Fargo: If I were to allow the neighborhood child molester to move into the bedroom next to my kids, my wife had better get a pretty good explanation. The point is that any civil rights group working with a company like Wells Fargo had better explain away the stigma very clearly and very quickly. If you do not, people are going to jump to conclusions. I would love to see the NAACP release information and contractual terms to explain the nature of their lawsuit against Wells Fargo and how the terms of the suit were satisfied. If they REALLY want to be open with the public, they would even reveal how much money Wells Fargo is giving to the organization.
2) We must all continue to be concerned with what happens from this point forward: The NAACP's lawsuit was based on dealing with present and future behavior on the part of Wells Fargo, which is certainly a meaningful contribution. But it is also my hope that none of us forgets that much of the damage done by Wells Fargo occurred in the past. These damages must be remedied, since it doesn't make sense to be punished for a crime by simply having to promise not to commit the crime anymore. Wells Fargo has profited from the African American community to the tune of several billion dollars, and I am not interested in seeing this company let off the hook so easily. I don't accuse the NAACP of letting them off the hook, but I am hopeful that additional calls for accountability will be forthcoming. There's an old woman somewhere without a home because of Wells Fargo's actions in the past. We need to help her too.
At the end of the day, I learned a little bit more about the NAACP and they learned a little bit more about me. I plan to continue to communicate with their leadership in hopes that we can all have an understanding of how they plan to monitor Wells Fargo and other banks that are making loans to African Americans. If the organization does half of what I've been told that they plan to do in this settlement, then the world will be better off. Let's see how this one goes.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the author of the new book, "Black American Money." To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.